One of my favorite hymns is “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte.
In continuing my series of posts on Isaiah I want to look more closely at the context of this famous Isaianic passage. This is the “Call of Isaiah,” where Isaiah is commissioned for his prophetic ministry. The passage begins with a statement that Isaiah’s vision took place “in the year the King Uzziah died” (Isa 6:1). This is a significant time in Israel’s history. Uzziah had been a good and prosperous king. During his 52-year(!) reign the borders of Judah and Israel expanded to include a territory that had been unprecedented since the time of Solomon. These were good years for God’s people. But they were marred when the good king Uzziah “became proud, to his destruction,” trying to take on a priestly role by burning incense in the temple (2 Chron 26:16, ESV). God struck Uzziah with leprosy, and for the rest of his life Uzziah was excluded from the house of the Lord (2 Chron 26:21). By the time Uzziah died, the Assyrian empire had already expanded enough that it was clear who was going to be the next superpower. This was a time when Israel’s optimism was dying and its impending doom was evident.
In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. [Isaiah 6:1]
Uzziah may not have been able to enter the temple, but there was a king who could – Yahweh. There was a king who would never be struck down with leprosy – Yahweh. There was a king who was high and lifted up, far beyond Uzziah and Tiglath Pileser III – Yahweh. There was king who would never die – Yahweh.
Isaiah saw him. And he saw him as glorious. The seraphim cried out that “all of the earth is filled with his glory” (6:3). So great was his glory that “the thresholds of the doorways shook” and “the temple was filled with smoke” when the seraphim cried out. So great was his glory that Isaiah cried out:
Woe to me! For I am ruined!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among of a people of unclean lips
for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Tsebaoth! [6:5]
No one is holy enough to see God and live. But an exception is made for Isaiah. Like Esther, when she stood before the king and he extends his gold scepter that she may live, so Isaiah stands before the King of Kings, and a glowing coal from the altar is extended to him. The seraph tells Isaiah:
Behold, this has touched your lips,
and your wickedness has been removed
and you sin has been atoned for. [6:7]
What a beautiful picture! This sinful man can have his sins removed in an instant … to the point that he can see God and live! What excitement must have entered Isaiah! And he is so excited that when he hears the Lord say, “Whom should I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah eagerly jumps up: “Here I am! Send me!”
Notice that Isaiah did not hear where he is going or for what purpose. All he knows is that there is a message that must be proclaimed, and Isaiah is eager to be the messenger. After seeing how God can remove the sin of “a man of unclean lips” in an instant, it seems obvious to Isaiah what the mission is. After all, he “lives among a people of unclean lips.” Give him a few coals from the altar, send him off, and things are going to be great! Who cares that the great King Uzziah is no longer leading the people? God himself is on the throne! Who cares that the Assyrians are advancing? They are no match for Yahweh! I can almost see Isaiah with his hand up in the air, jumping up and down: “Ooh, ooh, pick me! Pick me!” And then he gets the message:
Go and tell this people:
“Listen intently, but don’t understand,
Watch closely, but don’t get it.”
Harden the heart of this people,
Deafen its ears, and blind its eyes,
Lest they see with their eyes
And hear with their ears
And understand with their heart
And turn that he would heal them. [6:9-10]
Ouch! Not the message Isaiah was hoping to preach! Isaiah’s mission is to have a “failing ministry” – at least according to modern Christianity’s definition of success and failure. The possibility of healing is there! Just like Isaiah’s sin was taken away, so could the sin of the people be taken away if only they would see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and return to God. But that was not God’s plan. God’s plan was to have Isaiah preach while the people harden their hearts.
Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” [6:11]
How long does it need to be this way?
Until cities are desolate, with no one living in them,
And houses, with no man,
And the land is desolate, a wasteland,
And Yahweh casts man out,
And the forsaken area is multiplied in the land.
And though a tenth remain in her,
It will be burned again.
Like the terebinth and the oak,
Which when they are cut down become a stump,
The seed of holiness is its stump.
Ugh! Destruction and then more destruction. This is Isaiah’s message. The people must be taken out of the land. Indeed, this is the same thing Moses had proclaimed centuries earlier (Deut 28, 31-32), but perhaps Isaiah had hoped for something better in his time. Don’t we all? Don’t we all hope that people will repent and the Lord will pour out blessing on all of us? But that’s not always the case. Sometimes when we eagerly say, “Here I am! Send me,” we are signing up for something much less pleasant. But this too is the Lord’s will. There is a time to build up and a time to tear down.
The good news in all of this is that there will always be a seed of holiness. God leaves the stump when he cuts down the tree. And there is hope for the stump and for the seed, as we will see in future chapters. But for now, we must remember that it is our mission to preach, even if the effect of our preaching is to harden the hearts of those who listen. Judgment is coming. But even in this we can see the Lord seated on a throne.